Sheepshead is an old middle-European card game that was developed by shepherds in the late 1700s. Sheepshead also goes by the name Schafkopf (German for “sheepshead”) or Shep and is similar in play to pinochle and euchre. With a challenging rule system, this game rewards those diligent enough to learn it. You can play Sheepshead with two to eight players although it's most commonly played with three to five. If there are three or four players, they play for themselves, and if there are five players, they play in teams. The objective of Sheepshead is to win the most points by bidding and taking tricks with high-value cards. You'll use a shortened deck of thirty-two cards with the seven through the ace of each suit.
The Value of Cards
The four queens and the four jacks make up the top eight trumps. They rank as Q. The other suits are equal in value, and the cards rank high to low in the same order.
The cards also have values associated with them. The ace is worth eleven, the ten is worth ten, the king is worth four, the queen is worth three, the jack is worth two, and the remaining three cards are worth zero. So even though the queens and jacks help you take tricks, they are worth fewer points than tens and aces.
It is suggested that the ranking of cards for taking tricks in Sheepshead is structured thus because the peasants at the time were unhappy with royalty. They chose to make the queens and jacks have a higher rank and beat out the kings.
Dealing the Cards
Sheepshead opens with a random dealer being selected. When it's your turn to deal, deal a group of three cards to each player, face down. Place two cards face down in the middle of the table to form the “blind” which will be used in the next stage of play. Then deal another group of three cards to each player, face down. Deal passes to the left with each hand.
Picking the Blind
The player to the left of the dealer has the option to pick the blind. By picking up the blind, a player declares that she will win at least sixty-one points in captured cards during the hand. If she does not wish to take the blind, she says, “Pass.” If all players pass, the game is considered a misdeal, and that hand is over. (In one variation of Sheepshead, if all players pass, the game is a “leaster,” and the object is to take the fewest points. In order to qualify to win, you must win at least one trick. The winner receives a point from each player.)
If you're the first player to pick up the blind, you become the “picker” or declarer. You add the two cards to your hand and discard two cards from those you were already holding. These cards will count toward your points at the end of the game, but they will not be used in play. If there are three or four players, you play by yourself. If there are five players, as the declarer you can go alone against the other players or “choose” a partner by declaring one of the nontrump suits. You must have at least one card in that suit, but it cannot be the ace. If you discard an ace after picking up the blind, you may not call that suit. The player who has the ace of that suit becomes your partner, but he does not say it out loud. You will not know who your partner is until he plays the ace on a trick.
Another variation of Sheepshead is that the holder of the J is automatically the declarer's partner. The partner lets himself be known by playing the jack at the first time a trump card can be played.
Playing the Hand
The player to the dealer's left leads the first card by playing any one card from his hand. Play continues clockwise around the table. When it's your turn, you must follow suit if possible by playing one card from your hand in that suit. If you cannot, you may play any card from your hand. The player with the highest card in the suit led, or the highest trump, wins the trick and leads the next trick. When all six hands have been played, add up the points in the cards you have won based on their values given earlier.
In a five-player game, the hand is scored as follows. If you are the declarer and win a combined value of sixty-one points or more with your partner, you receive two points, and your partner receives one point. Each of your opponents loses one point. If your team wins a combined value of sixty points or fewer, you lose two points, your partner loses one point, and your opponents each receive one point.
In a four-player game, the hand is scored as follows. If you are the declarer and win a value of at least sixty-one points, you receive three points, and each of your opponents loses one point. If you win a value fewer than sixty-one points, you lose three points, and your opponents each receive one point.
In a three-player game, the hand is scored as follows. If you're the declarer and win a value of at least sixty-one points, you receive two points, and your opponents lose one point each. If you win a value fewer than sixty-one points, you lose two points and your opponents each receive one point.
In all instances, if one team or player wins ninety-one points or more in one hand, the hand is a “Schneider” and the points are doubled. If one side or player wins all the tricks, the hand is a “Schwarz” and the points are tripled. The player with the most points after ten hands wins the game.
The declarer theoretically has more trump than his opponents, since he picked the blind on a good hand. By leading trump, the declarer can usually draw out five trump cards, leaving only nine in all hands.